Peter’s principle – re-engineered

Poor Peter – when he said “employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence”, he probably had done a lot of research and then arrived at this principle. Little did he realise 40 years later, his principle will get turned on its head and how !

Most organizations have probably just done a round of yearly appraisals and given away increases, explained why no increases and had several incongruent conversations. Suddenly everyone is on their best behavior, hoping it would somehow miraculously improve their rating. It’s vestigial childhood behavior refusing to go away – remember those last minute marathon reading sessions before exams and praying/bribing every known or unknown God ? and hoping for better marks than what you deserve.

Watch the feedback you give during appraisals – a large part of it is driven by recent events since you didn’t record what happened six months back as you were so busy you could not do a sit down 1:1 conversation. Another influence is where you placed this person on the performance-potential grid – if he/she is a hi-pot, you smile and “rah rah” about his/her achievements and have no developmental feedback at all, if he/she is “just” meeting expectations, then it’s a pleasure to watch the feedback because its rarely about why the person “met” expectations last year, but mostly about how they only “meet” expectations in the next role, easier to justify.

Now what have appraisals got to do with Peter’s famous principle ? Short answer, everything !

The appraisal conversations are also the time you dole out promotions and re-engineer Peter’s principle by promoting people beyond their level of incompetence. Promotion has to be based on tread not mileage – how many years has someone worked at the same level or how many years have you known the person are not important at all in the promotion process – true meritocracy is about promoting the person best suited for the role. Determine the strengths needed for the role, determine the competences needed for the role, map desire and potential displayed, map career aspiration and learnings the new role will provide, determine the current peer impact, and most importantly evaluate whether the person “fits” into the new level’s culture. I hope you are exhausted just reading all this, so it’s no wonder the promotion process is not as exhaustive.

The minute you find yourself using superlatives and gushing over a person without strong data to support your fawning, check yourself and go back to your role framework and write down how has the person fared against that.

Some classic signs that you have re-engineered Peter’s principle are – data says there is no risk the manager has taken and has stayed in the same role, same team, for a long time and is being recommended for a promotion, data says engagement is bad, and you still rate a people manager high, data says there is no failure at all the person has faced and you give him/her a new project to launch, data says if you talk to the person the whole day and come away with no clarity and that person happens to be a senior leader, … Data is impartial and speaks the truth.

The classiest Peter Principle re-engineering is when a leader tries to impose the construct that worked in his/her previous organization in his new role – remember Bob Nardelli and the 50% failures that GE’s CEO factory produced ?

We are constantly challenging Peter – risking our businesses and putting competent people’s career’s under jeopardy. Re-engineering Peter’s Principle is best left undone.

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